Thursday, 18 December 2014

Are girls and boys born, or made?

Today we took Ana to her first ever cinema trip. While this is probably deserving of a post in itself, it's not actually what I want to write about. The film that we took her to see was Tinkerbell and the legend of the Neverbeast, a very typical Disney, funny with a few laughs for the grown ups too, some nice music and lots of 'aaaah' factor. It is a bit of a misnomer, however, in that the main character is actually Fawn, not Tinkerbell, but I guess that Tinkerbell is better known and a bigger puller of box-office sales. Also, Fawn herself had some suspicious similarities (in facial expressions and overall tone) to Ana from Frozen, so Disney could be accused of trying to cash in twice on the same job, but hey - if the children like it, I'm happy.

But one thing I've been thinking about ever since the 12.15 performance today, is the representation of fairies and the role models our children are being offered by this very influential enterprise.

Speaking of Frozen, I was actually quite impressed with how they crafted the two main characters. Ana was a lovable and courageous protagonist, action-prone, funny and loyal to the end. Elsa was her multi-layered antagonist, too complex to be considered a "baddie" even while she's freezing the world to death; ultimately, the popularity of the song Let it Go was probably a testament to how much everyone was taken by the theme of a girl coming to terms with her enormous power, and this is a good thing.

But I found Fawn et al a little less clear-cut. The fairies were split into two teams: the cute, feminine fairies who have various jobs within the forest (teaching animals how to do various things you'd think animals are quite adept at, like walking, flying etc) and the warrior-like Scout fairies whose job is to safeguard Pixie Hollow and protect it from any threat. Personally I confess I found Scout fairies way more interesting (but that's maybe because I was never a very fairy sort of person). Carrying out a very responsible job, brandishing swords (or some fairy-equivalent) and being generally tough and scary (as much as that's possible for creatures only a few inches tall), they seem a much more gender-stereotype-challenging bunch than their more girlie counterparts. But the scriptwriters seem quite clear in who they want us to identify with and prefer, almost all the way through the film: yes, you've guessed it, the girlie ones. The Scout fairies are presented as the "baddies" (someone has to take that role in a film that doesn't actually have any negative characters, even the Neverbeast from the title turns out to be the adorably fluffy Gruff) who oppose the good-hearted Fawn because they don't have much faith in her caring, loving ways. At the very end, of course, even the Scout fairy leader Nyx comes to see the error of her ways and becomes more like Fawn, because we can't really have any long-term disharmony in a fairy(tale) world.

But this scenario did leave me wondering, why? If they had to cast some of the fairies into the role of the temporary bad guys, why did the script writers choose to select the tomboy-ish, assertive, capable, ass-kicking Scouts for this? And not our cute, girlie, feminine friends who seem fairly preoccupied with their looks (at least one of them doesn't want to do various things because it makes her 'skin break out')? My guess is, because, the 'right' role for our daughters is still considered to be the feminine one, that one that is sweet, and pretty, and girlie, and non-threatening to anyone? Bizarrely enough, the Scouts go back to their positions of relative power and responsibility, in line with their macho image because it would appear that even in Disney creations the more 'masculine' characters are, the more power they have. But this power is not shown as a desirable thing, not something that girly fairies seem to have any interest in. No - they are perfectly happy to go back to the business of being teachers, carers, nurses and whatever else they might be up to in the magical forest. Does this sound familiar at all?

As a parent, I see the artificial gender divisions drawing a line between girls and boys, all the time. There are girls' toys and boys' toys (a tea set vs a workbench); girls' books and boys' books (Angelina Ballerina vs Thomas the Tank Engine); girls' t-shirts and pyjamas are decorated with pictures of girls, angels, butterflies, cupcakes, fairies, flowers, and an overwhelming abundance of pink; boys' clothes feature Superman, Spiderman, trucks, rockets, football, and a completely different colour scheme featuring blues, greens and browns; the girls' bed linen is another example, you cannot move for pink hearts, kittens, and princesses. Boys on the other hand get to enjoy dinosaurs, animals, vehicles, action heroes. I could, of course, always buy Ana a dark blue and black bed linen, featuring some astronauts but, in all honesty, it just looks wrong. I guess all of us have been indoctrinated enough to have internalised these artificial expectations of what a girl's bedroom should look like (and even if I could convince myself, I could never convince Ana). It's not so much that I want to invert everything, it's more that I would like things to be neutral, instead of screaming GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS or BOYS BOYS BOYS at us from every angle.

Our children are being subjected to messages of who they are and what is appropriate for them almost from the moment they are born. A lot of those messages are limiting, damaging and most of all, untrue. It is every parent's task to try and break through these crazy, artificial barriers on our children's developing lives and personalities. If they grow up to be only what they have been prescribed, the entire humanity will be all the poorer for it. 

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